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Trying to identify a 1930s ballet movie

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I've just received an email from someone trying to identify an old ballet film. Here are some excerpts:

"I saw a film on TV (Cable, here in the US) maybe 10 years ago

(Turner Classic Movie channel - TCM) about a young dancer from the Paris

Opera Ballet, I think it was called "I want to be a Dancer" that had

Fokine and Vaganova in the cast among so many others. I have tried to

contact TCM about it and they have not returned my emails...

Essentially the movie is about a young ballerina student at the

Paris Opera Ballet school and I think it must have been made at the

beginning of talking films? I didn't know Fokine and Vaganova were in

it until I read the credits!!"

and also (in a second message):

"The film I refer to was filmed at the Paris Opera Ballet I am almost

certain in the 30's. A heart warming story about being a young ballerina

and being in the Paris Opera Ballet school. I do not think it was dubbed

into english but I may be wrong - what I saw seemed to be done in British

English, not American English. The title was I think "I Want to be a

Dancer" and was in Black and White. In the credits I was astounded to

see Fokine and Vaganova! among others possibly Massine..."

So could someone help identify that film? The only ballet movie of that period dealing with the Paris Opera Ballet I've heard about is Jean Benoît-Lévy's "La mort du cygne" (1938), with Janine Charrat (as a kid), Yvette Chauviré (as a young ballerina) and Mia Slavenska. But I've never heard about Fokine and Vaganova being in it...

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Is the correspondent certain of the title, and the Paris Opéra location? And whether it is a full-length or a short? There was a dreadful short made in the 50s using the Royal Danish Ballet, and dubbed by Claire Bloom in her plummiest RP. The title in the US was "Ballet Girl" and all that I can recall from it is a section of "Konservatoriet". Fokine and Vaganova weren't in it, but perhaps their choreography or classroom material was.

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I seem to remember seeing something somewhere sometime, about the POB School, in a film with Violette Verdy, who was a child in the film. Do not remember the title or anyone else in the film, nor where and when I saw it. The title "Le Petit Rat" comes to mind, but don't know why, and that may be just because the students at the school have that title? Not sure at all, but I'm pretty sure there was a film with Violette.

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Mel, I've sent what you wrote to my correspondent, we'll see what he'll reply...

Victoria, Violette Verdy was in the film "Ballerina" in 1953 (directed by Ludwig Berger), on imdb.com is says that it also was known in the US as "Dream Ballerina". I've never seen it, just heard about it...

What is most puzzling is the presence of Fokine and Vaganova in the credits. If they were in the film as actors, then it must have been filmed before 1942 (Fokine's death). But perhaps, as Mel suggested, they were in the credits not as actors, but as choreographers or teachers?

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In my trusty 'Dance Encyclopedia' (Chujoy, 1949) he cites a catalogue of Dance Motion Pictures compiled by George Amberg (one-time curator at Museum of Modern Art, NY) of 700 films. The list was published in the May 1945 issue of 'Dance Index'.

Unrelated to this topic, there is also an essay written by Balanchine on ballet in motion pictures. If it is legal, and if anyone is interested I will type it in.

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I'm interested.

Quote from 'Dance Encyclopedia' (ed. Chujoy, pub. 1949)

Ballet in Motion Pictures by George Balanchine

It is absurd to regard motion picturees as only a relaxation and pastime. One should have the same attitude toward motion pictures as one has toward any other form of theatrical art. Films should be a product of greater imagination and fantasy than the theatre because of the larger scope which elements of space and time have in motion pictures.

I also think that the responsibility of anyone working in motion pictures, whether he is a producer, director or actor, is greater than in the theatre because he is addressing not a selected group of people, not only a city public, but large masses of people all over the world. This is why I think a serious, artistic, creative, inventive and imaginative approach to the films is an absolute necessity.

The importance of ballet for motion pictures is the element of pure fantasy. Although motion pictures have known quite a lot of fantasy, it has been limited to the field of comedy as exemplified by the Chaplin and Marx Brothers films.

The average picture seldom deals with free fantasy, but is tied up closely with real life. The fairy-tale type of unreality has up to now been employed in the field of animated cartoons. This field, through the medium of the technical tricks of the camera and the freedom it has over imaginative conceptions, is most suitable to the motion picture, and as yet remains completely unexplored.

People have got into the habit of going to the movies to see reenacted their own lives or the lives of people they envy, but the world of make believe and pure fantasy is still only a by-product of present day production. Naturalistic theatre has always bored me, as I think that essentially theatre art is based on the audience's desire to escape rather than to relive reality.

It is mainly because of its purely imaginative---I would even say artificial---quality that ballet is important for motion pictures. It introduces a completely imaginative world whose form is of a plastic nature---a visual perfection of an imaginative life. This, for me, is the realm of complete fantasy. It has its own laws, its own meaning and cannot be explained by the usual criterions of logic.

On the other hand, the possibilities opened by motion pictures for the classic ballet are of an even greater importance and interest.

First of all, the frame of the screen is a far more movable think than the frame of the theatre; it does not bind the ballet to the visual square of thirty or forty feet. The same applies to the space and movability of the settings. It is far easier to create a complete space fantasy on the screen than on the stage. Natural elements like wind, light, and sound can be more freely applied to the screen than to the stage and thus become by far more important additions to classic ballet than they are on the stage.

Another important point is that the spectator sees a stage ballet always from the same angle and from the same distance. On the screen, however, the spectator moves with the camera and thus can see the ballet not only from a wide range of angles but also from a wide range of distances. He may even feel himself amidst the ballet performance.

This imposes completely new problems on the choreographer. It renders his task far more intricate and difficult, gives him new riddles to solve and a wide range of possibilities for his invention in the domain of fantasy.

It is also quite important to point out the fact that in the film, ballet is visually equally complete, no matter from what seat in the auditorium one looks at it. The camera does the work. In the theatre a person sitting high in the balcony generally sees only wigs and heads and thus has only an incomplete view of the ballet performance. It appears distorted and obviously he cannot enjoy and appreciate it. The movies correct this error of the theatre and render it possible for every member of the audience to enjoy ballet fully.

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ATM, thank you so much for taking the time and trouble to relay this interesting capsule manifesto. Like all manifestos, it covers the practice of the proponent rather than the art in general, but even that limitation is illuminating. Balanchine doesn't want to concede that ballet, while it remains in its own universe of plastic signifiers, still has an intermittent and therefore uncodifiable relationship with reality. For its system, no matter how remote and stylized, began in ordinary human movement, and must therefore overlap with it all the time. A jump CAN convey exultation, and jump with a beat exultation and excitement, and a jump with several beats exultation, excitement and urgency, even if those CANS aren't necessarily activated in the abstract propositions known as the jete, the cabriole and the brise respectively. Balanchine is writing from ballet's inside; here is the Romantic poet Leigh Hunt looking in at it from the outside. Yet, even though his stance is hostile and diametrically opposed to B's, their ideas converge. The pronoun "he" in the extract relates to the phrase "French dancer":

he balances himself, he hangs his arms like encumbrances, he moves them about merely to make the best of an encumbrance, he plants his face stiffly, he fixes his body like a statue, he sways about it on his centre like a pivot, he stops, he quivers his foot about the other ancle with the most ridiculous non-meaning, he stops again.

I wonder, though, whether, had he lived to see Ivanov's Lac Act II, LH would have have described Odette's petits battements as "ridiculous non-meaning." There the controlling narrative context activates as so many semiotic CANs, all or some of the following: the palpitation of a bird's breast, the anxiety subtending fulfilment (Romeo hearing the lark), the tremulousness of feeling that has just been awakened. Balanchine's practice may have conceded that, but his principles, at least in this particular manifesto, don't.

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I'll join Rodney in thanking you for the considerable effort in typing the B'chine essay, ATM. :sweating:

Isn't it interesting that both examples of Balanchiniana that I've seen in Hollywood movies exaggerate the element of fantasy. Those are Zorina's Water Ballet from "Goldwyn Follies" and the bizarre, intriguing White Swan pas with Tallchief and (I believe) Eglevsky. :P(Anyone know which film this is, please advise.) :wink:

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The Swan Lake movie-treatment by Balanchine (with sets by Pavel Tchelitchew) was a part of the comedy I Was an Adventuress (1940). Look quickly, and you can catch Himself as the orchestra conductor.

(PS. It took me about three years when I was a teen to realize that this movie was a satire - I should have known from Erich von Stroheim and Peter Lorre lurking around!)

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i don't know if this was stated yet but in case it was not:

the 'swan lake' dancers in 'i was an adventuress' were vera zorina and lew christiansen

here's how the NYPublic Lib. for the Perf. Arts lists one excerpt in its collection:

I was an adventuress (1940): excerpt (11 min.) Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, 20th Century Fox. Directed by Gregory Ratoff. Choreography by Balanchine. Music: Tchaikovsky. After a brief interlude with Vera Zorina in practice clothes, a fantasy parody of Swan lake is performed by Zorina and Lew Christensen.

oddly w/ ref. the initial post's ref. to the white swan pdd: this fantasie duet has the zorina's swanqueen dressed in all-black, including tights and toeshoes. i suspect that part of the 'logic' to re-dress balanchine's own stage 'swanlake' after his death in the black designs by a.vaes was based in part on this precedent. however the nouveau version under the direction of martins & kirstein, dresses the corps de b. in black tutus but not black tights and toeshoes and leaves odette in white. huh?

btw, what a fascinating piece of info. you offer mel, re: tchelichev!!!

i guess i've not read my references carefully enough over the years. makes sense tho' even as it's escaped me all the while.

can you rem. where the credit was spelt out?

i'd love to read it and further cement it in my ever curious but often confused brain.

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RG, I gotta hit the books for this one. I remember the attribution, and, I believe, even the screen credit "Décor for ballet - P. Tchelitchew", which was part of my teenage believing that it was seriously intended. One thing can be sure, When Balanchine wrote about "plastic distances" in his 1954 essay in "...Complete Stories of the Great Ballets", he knew what he was talking about. Loved the bit at the end where Christiansen waded out into the lake, all the way to von R's castle, and draped himself over it. Also thought his armor was a real interesting choice for costuming. The Set Decorator in the online sites is listed as Thomas Little, but he may have been coordinating with other designers for specialized scenes. I could be wrong, too!

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the 'swan lake' dancers in 'i was an adventuress' were vera zorina and lew christiansen

:blushing: Thanks, rg. Of course they were. I should have remembered, since Zorina featured both these clips in a lecture a the 92nd St. Y. :wallbash: I have never seen the full "Adventuress," but I've seen the SL scene out of context a number of times. I think Classic Arts Showcase plays it from time to time.

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i WANT you to be right, here, as well as elsewhere, mel.

the 'surreal' aspect of that scene - most pronounced by the moments you relate here - makes the tchelichev attritbution ring true.

i'll keep poking around myself. i have a few references that MIGHT lead to leads. i'll letcha know if do, meanwhile, many thanks for the 'hope' your post gives.

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I thought the answer might be in the Winter 1995 Ballet Review article, "Balanchine in Hollywood," but it makes no mention of Tchelitchew in the section on I was an Adventuress. :blushing: There is another article on Tchelitchew in the Fall 1995 issue but I can't find the issue right now. If anybody else has their BRs easily available, they might want to check it out.

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